I watch Strictly Come Dancing. This is a bit of a shame, but I do. I enjoy it being on in the background, a bit like golf or the Archers. And like golf, Strictly has always smelled a little racist to me. It’s always seemed to me that ethnic minority contestants have a much rougher ride than ethnic majority contestants, at least in terms of the public vote. Others have felt the same: when I decided to write this I had a little look around the internet and found a bunch of articles from the past few years about perceived racism, including, in a very circumspect way, the only black dancer on the show, Oti.
This year the racism issue came up again when Chizzy left early doors, against the odds. She later argued that race had nothing to do with her elimination, and that to play the race card is “dangerous” when “there are real racial injustices going on in the world”. Alexandra, currently on the receiving end of Strictly racism, has spoken out against the accusation that the show mistreats ethnic minorities. The show doesn’t see race, she says, and lots of people have agreed with her.
So who’s right? Is it racist or not?
You might think we’d find the answer in the articles that discuss this, but no: each merely repeats the claims and counterclaims of varied contestants / dancers / viewers, without any attempt to uncover the truth or falsity of any particular point of view. The only piece I found which claimed to try to get to the truth of the matter was in the Radio Times – Statistics Show Strictly Come Dancing is not Racist. While this an improvement on the he-said-she-said ‘reporting’ elsewhere, it doesn’t show an awful lot: for one thing the numbers involved are not statistically significant, and for another, the article doesn’t define in what way Strictly is supposed to be racist.
So before I knee-jerk in either direction, I thought I’d fill the gap in the market with a little Sunday morning research.
Question: Is Strictly Come Dancing racist?
Hypothesis: Strictly Come Dancing is structurally racist through the action of viewer votes. Specifically, BME contestants receive on average fewer public votes than white contestants, disproportionate to their dancing ability.
Method: To assess the hypothesis, we need to measure the viewers votes and how these relate to race. Strictly doesn’t tell us specifics about how many public votes the contestants get, so the only way we can access data about viewer votes is by looking at the bottom two contestants each week. By measuring the distance that contestants fell down the leader-board in order to end up in the bottom two, we can see the impact of viewer votes. We can then compare the amount that BME contestants fell compared to white contestants.
Now, for the purposes of this study, I’m assuming the judges votes are objective and not motivated by race. Given this assumption, we will be able to identify structural racism if BME contestants fall further than white contestants.
Details: I used the wikipedia data on each and every series, measuring every couple in the bottom two throughout the competition, and assigning each instance with a score representing the difference between their position before public votes and their position afterwards. I looked at the difference in each series and across the show as a whole, then validated the data to see whether any difference was statistically significant or not. (I can provide a very messy spreadsheet with the data if anyone’s interested).
Results: Across every series of Strictly except the very first, BME contestants in the bottom two fell further from their pre-phone-in positions than white contestants. The average fall for BME contestants is 2.54 places, while the average for white contestants is 1.63 places. That’s a difference of 0.91 places per show.
|Series||Average places dropped||Average places dropped (BME)|
|Overall difference||Average places dropped||Average places dropped (BME)|
|2003-2017 (Dec 3rd)||1.63||2.54|
In the least disparate of recent seasons (2014), the difference was minimal – 2.07 (white) against 2.13 (BME) places. But in the most disparate seasons there was a difference of 2 whole places. For example, during the current season, white contestants in the dance-off have fallen on average 1.29 places to end up there, while BME contestants have fallen 3.30 places. That means that in this series (and two others which are equally extreme – 2012 and 2010), BME contestants need to be at least 3 places outside of the bottom two in order to avoid the dance-off.
Significance: While the results for each individual series are not statistically significant (that is, the variance between white and BME contestants is potentially random and not definitely correlated to race), the results across the show’s run are very significant (that is, we can be confident that the public voting is less well disposed to BME contestants, regardless of ability). The likelihood of the difference in the public’s voting habits being random is less than 0.1%.
Discussion: Does this prove that Strictly is racist? As a show, no. It’s not racist, as there’s nothing in the format that discriminates between those of different races. As an edifice, though, Strictly is racist, as the outcomes for those that take part are determined in part by their race and not their ability. Strictly is racist not because of Len Goodman and Tony Beak (well, it is racist because of them, but that’s a different issue), but because of us, the voters. By disproportionately choosing not to vote to save BME contestants, we the voters make it harder for them to succeed.
But is this really racism? The outcomes might be discriminatory, but does that mean that it’s racist? It doesn’t feel that way at first, because each of us that’s voted for a white contestant hasn’t thought “I’ll save Mollie because I don’t like the dark fella” (No-one’s thought “I’ll save Mollie” at all, I know, but this is a hypothetical situation, so bear with me), we’ve thought “I’ll save Mollie because…, because, well she’s really…”, nope, literally can’t think of a reason anyone would save Mollie. Forget that hypothetical situation: let’s try Gemma instead: they don’t think “I’ll choose Gemma because she’s got white skin”, but “I’ll save Gemma because she seems like a nice human being”. Yeah, that works. It’s not active racism, to be sure, but isn’t it still racist if the impact is to have a disproportionately negative effect on people from a particular racial group?
Critique: Before we go onto that, let’s examine some alternative explanations for the disparity between BME and white contestants.
Maybe the BME contestants are all worse than the white contestants? This won’t do, however, as the study I’ve conducted doesn’t (unlike the Radio Times article) use absolute achievement as the measure, but voter-determined achievement relative to the objective measure of the judges. If BME contestants were worse dancers, the judges would mark them lower and they would fall a shorter distance to end in the bottom two.
Or would they? Are the judges really neutral? Maybe the assumption that the judges are neutral is not valid? Well in order for the judges’ inconsistencies to account for the underperformance of BME contestants, they’d have to be marking these contestants disproportionately highly – some kind of positive discrimination perhaps? I think this is unlikely, but I’ve no evidence to back this up. We’d need to rope in some other ballroom/latin judges to judge the judges, and I’ve certainly not got the patience for that.
If we continue with our assumption that the judges are not positively discriminating, maybe something else accounts for the public’s lack of enthusiasm for BME contestants rather than their race? Seems unlikely, but there is another possible explanation here: it could be that the BME contestants that do worse than expected are less famous than their white counterparts, and are therefore unlikely to have as large a public groundswell of support. I’m not sure about this – it may have something to it but we’d need to do proper research into public perception to find out whether it is.
But let’s suppose for the moment that it is true. This would mean that the BME contestants do worse on the ‘public-appeal’ aspect of the competition than they do in the dancing part not because they’re black or brown, but because they’re not as well known.
Even if this alternative explanation were true (which I’m really not sure about), it leaves a broader question: is this still racism? In one sense it is not, because the proximate cause of the lower position in the leader-board would not be race but well-known-ness. But in a broader sense it would nevertheless indicate an underlying unfairness in society, which creates the disproportionately low number of publicly-likeable BME celebrities. This in turn would presumably indicate an underlying tendency to find white people more likeable than BME people.
In either case, then (either the public not voting for BME contestants, or not voting for less-well-known contestants, who happen to be disproportionately BME) we’re dealing with a passive sort of racism – a racism inherent in the structures of society rather than an individual’s beliefs. It may make us squirm to call it racism (and that ‘us’ refers here to us white people) because we immediately go onto the defensive – “I’m not racist so it can’t be racism”. But surely racism should be defined by its effect on those who suffer it, not by the intention of those who perpetuate it, even if they do so unknowingly?
Talking about this kind of racism has recently led to a lot of pushback, especially from those emboldened by Trump and Farage and Mogg and their casual disregard for political correctness. We (again, we white people) hear the way they stand up against things that make us feel uncomfortable and there’s a part of us that wants to agree and say “how dare you tell me my Strictly is racist”. It’s a natural, if odious, reaction. By uncovering the facts instead of going straight on the offensive/defensive, I would hope we can cut through some of that tribal response and address the issue with a calm head.
And anyway, regardless of how uncomfortable we feel when we uncover racism, the bottom line is that where it exists in our society, it is all of our responsibilities to address it, even if it shows us up in a bad light.
Conclusion: What do we do, then? Racism is relatively easy to identify in its cruder forms, and needs tackling head on where it rears its head – Chizzy is right about that. But the fact that there are more extreme forms of racism which still flourish does not mean that we should ignore less extreme forms of racism. I disagree with Chizzy that it’s dangerous to point out real structural inequality as it exists in society. And we shouldn’t hide behind the words of others as an excuse for not seeking the truth (“Phew, Alexandra says it’s not racist so I can stop worrying about it”).
If we know that there’s a structural inequality in society it falls to us all to respond. How? If, as I suspect, a lot of the passive racism here is down to underlying bias, we can start by taking steps to re-balance. One simple way is to use our imagination more – to actively think more broadly and openly, rather than passively assuming that if we carry on as we are things will work out alright. They won’t; they don’t.
One final thought: one of the tragedies of the last couple of years has been the decreasing reliance on evidence in public debate, both in the media and in the social media. I don’t want to blow my horn (I do), but it was pretty easy for me to do some very basic research today to find out whether Strictly is racist, and if so in what way. It’s taken me the better part of a Sunday morning. But none of the papers or websites with Strictly racism articles thought to do this. And judging by the message boards and the twitters, very few of us thought to actually investigate a little before squirting out an opinion. We can do so much better than this.